Slack Product Lead on Building A Non-Technical Product Career
Product Career: Everyone Starts As “Non-Technical”
Not every product career begins with a purely-technical background. In other words, the last non-product job that I had was working as a barista at a coffee shop. Furthermore, many of the skills that work at retail are perfectly applicable to product roles. For example, I was proficient in management / operations well before I was a product manager. In addition, I had other liberal arts skills that are perfect for product – such as writing and critical thinking.
That said, I didn’t know a thing about software when my product career began. As we know, product management is a jack-of-all-trades role. However, many people assume that you need to come from a technical background to be a product manager. With this in mind, I think it’s important to realize the following.
Every person you work with was non-technical at some point.
Simply put, no one is born as a product manager or technical guru. Everyone learns the skills that go into technical roles over time. In other words, when I started out – I didn’t have any knowledge of the technical skills or processes that define product management. Today, I’m able to talk intelligently about any number of subjects – from APIs to server-side or client-side features.
Specifically, my current role at Slack focuses on the search and machine-learning side of the product. As a result, you have to think abstractly and analytically at the same time. This represents a perfect example of combining non-technical skills from my past life as an English major with newly-acquired technical skills on the engineering side.
Ultimately, the way you overcome knowledge gaps with technical skills is to talk to the experts. In my case, I’ve always thought of myself as an “engineer’s product manager” – which is to say that I enjoy digging into a data model and understanding the mechanics that go into building something new.
In the end, this process enables non-technical product managers to master essential skills to increase their overall performance and capacity. And remember – engineers didn’t know a thing about computers at some point in their lives. In other words, anyone who’s building a product career can learn the technical side of things through experience.